“Let the word go forth from this time and place – to friend and foe alike – that the torch has been passed to a new generation of American: Born in this century; tempered by war; disciplined by by a hard and bitter peace; proud of our ancient heritage – and unwilling to witness or permit the small undoing of those human rights to which this nation has always been committed, and to which we are committed today at home and around the world” –John F. Kennedym January 20, 1961 — Fifty years ago today
“Bring ’em on!” –George W. Bush, Summer 2003
“Darwin was wrong.” –Mort Sahl, 1988
The “ask not what your country can do for you” bit I never thought to be one of that speech’s strong points. Although it is striking in hindsight for its call to sacrifice (Can you imagine a politician doing that today?), it was never much more than a sound bite I think – a catchy quotation that would sound good on the radio and evening news programs. There is so much more to John F. Kennedy’s Inaugural Address than the one line that everyone remembers.
“The world is very different now. For man holds in his mortal hands the power to abolish all forms of human poverty and all forms of human life. And yet the same revolutionary beliefs for which our forebears fought are still at issue around the globe—the belief that the rights of man come not from the generosity of the state, but from the hand of God.”
It is ironic that the death of Sargent Shriver this week should fall on the eve of the fiftieth anniversary of his brother-in-law’s inauguration. As the decades pass, John Fitzgerald Kennedy recedes further and further into the mists of history. May 16 of last year marked the first day that he has been gone from this life longer than he lived it. Recent months also saw the death of Ted Sorensen, Kennedy’s devoted aide and main speechwriter. Indeed, most of the members of that administration – as young and vital as most of them were on January 20, 1961 – have now passed on. “Camelot” was a long, long time ago.
I can go on all night talking about Jack Kennedy. One of the perks of being Irish Catholic is that we get to refer to him as “Jack”. Although he’s not my favorite president (FDR holds that place in my heart) he was the only chief executive of my lifetime who would qualify as “great”. (Sorry, but I never succumbed to Ronniemania). No one who succeeded him has even come close to measuring up to JFK. His greatness lies in his legacy. Although he wasn’t able to accomplish a heck of a lot during the less-than three years that fate allowed him, he did set this country on the path toward accomplishing great things.
“Finally, to those nations who would make themselves our adversary, we offer not a pledge but a request: that both sides begin anew the quest for peace, before the dark powers of destruction unleashed by science engulf all humanity in planned or accidental self-destruction.”
Nearly a half century of biographical scholarship has unveiled some unpleasant truths about Jack Kennedy. He was not the model of human perfection that so many in his generation imagined to be. This was a great man, greatly flawed. I’m willing to cut the guy as much slack as the slack factory can provide. Most of the historians who have spent the last half century digging up the facts of his life – unpleasant and otherwise – agree that he was essentially a good man and that, for the most part, his heart was in the right place. That’s good enough for me.
Oh, and did I mention that he was our funniest president? The guy was a scream! I’m sure it had something to do with his being Irish.
“Now the trumpet summons us again—not as a call to bear arms, though arms we need; not as a call to battle, though embattled we are—but a call to bear the burden of a long twilight struggle, year in and year out, ‘rejoicing in hope, patient in tribulation’—a struggle against the common enemies of man: tyranny, poverty, disease, and war itself.”
Four years ago on May 29, 2007, the occasion of what would have been his ninetieth birthday, I wrote the following on this site:
“Listening to a recording of his address to the graduating class of 1963 on the campus of American University, one can’t help but feel a sense of real sadness – almost despair – at how far we have fallen as a nation in the ensuing forty-four years. It is almost as if, after wandering through the desert for all those decades, we emerged to find out that the shining city on the hill has turned out to be nothing more than a mirage – a cheap and cynical political huckster’s vision of a government of the privileged, by the privileged, for the privileged. When JFK took the oath of office on January 20, 1961, America’s future was bright and boundless. Today our only glory is in our past. The damage that has been done to the country he loved so well – the country he almost died defending in World War II – will be with us for generations. What would he have thought of the America of 2007?”
Or 2011 for that matter.
My memory of 1961 is only vaguely focused. I was, after all, three-and-a-half years old on the day President Kennedy was inaugurated. President Obama hadn’t even been born yet. That blessed little event would take place on August 4 of that year, and (ATTENTION BIRTHERS) it would take place in Hawaii, which (as we all know) is located in the United States of America.
My impression of JFK when I was a very little boy – a toddler really – was as the guy on TV with all that hair. It always seemed so long to me! I wouldn’t see a comparable head of hair on any man until the Beatles arrived on our shores in February 1964. Because of this I thought he was much younger than he really was. I remember a few years after his death, the moment I discovered that he was in fact thirteen years older than my father. I was stunned! I had honestly thought him to be about ten years younger – simply because he seemed so youthful!
It’s ironic to think that, despite his youth and vitality – “vigah” – his health, we now know, was so fragile. Four times in his life he was given the last rites of the Roman Catholic Church. It’s a safe bet that, had he not gone to Dallas on that dreadful day, he would have died relatively young anyway. Jack Kennedy’s stay on the planet earth was never meant to be long.
I can still remember what my father was wearing when he told me, “The president’s been shot.” He had just pulled in the driveway and had the car radio on. I was arriving home from Mrs. Peevey’s kindergarten class. I distinctly recall that, despite it being late into the autumn, it was an unseasonably warm day. Something wonderful ended on November 22, 1963 – not just John F. Kennedy’s life – but America’s youthful optimism as well. I don’t believe this country ever got over the assassination of President Kennedy.
Maybe it will one day. Maybe not.
“I do not shrink from this responsibility—I welcome it. I do not believe that any of us would exchange places with any other people or any other generation. The energy, the faith, the devotion which we bring to this endeavor will light our country and all who serve it—and the glow from that fire can truly light the world. And so, my fellow Americans: ask not….”
Aw, hell. You know the rest of it.
Unless your name is Martin Luther King, It just doesn’t get much better than this.